Interview with John Gengarella about Fitness Technology

John Gengarella is known for his extensive experience in global operations, customer-centric design and application development. He has been connected with highly successful enterprise software businesses for over 25 years. However, John began his career in the fitness industry. Outside of the fitness industry, John has held executive roles including vice president of C3 Energy, Chief Revenue Officer for 24/7 Customer and CEO of Voxify. In 2015, John was appointed the CEO of Netpulse, a company that has been viewed as one of the market leaders in mobile technology for the fitness industry. In addition to his professional work, John is the lead mentor in the non-profit organization StartX, which focuses on the development of Stanford’s top entrepreneurs through experiential education. He is also an angel investor and advisor to various early stage technology ventures.

1) One thing that consistently surprises me is that it usually takes a while for emerging tech companies — ones that specifically focus on health clubs — to realize that the total addressable market (TAM) regarding health clubs is actually fairly modest. In this regard, what lessons can you pass down to anyone thinking about creating technology that caters to health clubs?

I do not agree that it is a small total addressable market. I actually believe it’s enormous.  I think if you look at what’s out there today, you’ve got a handful of groups doing over a billion dollars in sales. If you look at the spend over the entire industry, there are testaments of over a $70 billion TAM. Folks are investing serious money to engage their members. I believe there are 185,000 clubs globally, that’s an enormous market. MINDBODY got a $450 million evaluation, a company that’s focusing on a niche segment of the market — studios.

You can easily build a $100 million company in this space. But it depends on how you define the market. Thirty years ago or so, I had a few clubs. We had index cards that had member’s names on them and you stuffed envelopes with monthly invoices that looked like the things you get at Denny’s. So, if you were assessing the fitness market at that time as an entrepreneur, did you say, “Hey, I’m going to make money on index cards and envelopes,” or did you say, “Hey, I can build a CRM solution, or automated billing system, and completely change the dynamics in a new set of investments in that segment?” I think you have got to look at the market overall and how we’re solving problems. I think if you look at IT spend, for example, that might be a small number. That might only be a billion dollars. But what does an average club spend on marketing? It’s 10x that spend. I bet worldwide clubs spend close to 10 billion annually on member acquisition. I think there is an enormous opportunity for the right entrepreneur in this space. The challenge is you have to go solve a problem. What do I do to engage members? What do I do to attract new members? What do I do to increase my retention? …the same core tenets exist from 30 years ago.

So my assessment is I think the market’s huge. And then, where do you draw the line? Is it Fitbit? Is it Under Armour? I mean the lines are blurring every day, there are tens of billions invested annually in fitness. As a software guy, I’m not as interested in treadmills and those kind of things. The Precors and the Matrixes will make their money selling equipment. 30 years ago, we talked about what was inside our four walls. Today, now we are talking about engagement with members outside of those four walls, as well. The club brand is still alive and well… on your app… on your T-shirt — but the market is changing. It is no longer necessarily simply what is happening in those three hours a week inside the club anymore.

2) As the head of a company that makes a great fitness mobile app — specifically regarding fitness — what is the role of activity trackers as they exist today, when the modern smartphone often rivals the internal hardware of commercial fitness devices?

That’s interesting. There is no question that the Apples and the Samsungs are going to be battling the Fitbits of the world very soon in terms of tracking. You have a few pieces that you’re solving for in this space:

  1. You need a form factor that works
  2. You want as complete of a data set as possible
  3. You want accuracy

I think the biggest challenge for smartphones is form factor. Especially since phones are getting bigger as they also are turning into mini entertainment centers. Also, women often leave their phone in their purse, so it is not constantly tracking activity. I think form factor is a challenge for phones today. What this means is you are also not getting a complete data set. For those who want all their activity tracked, you need to have your phone glued to you 24/7. Accuracy is also an issue. Without separate peripherals you are not going to get heartrate information, at least not accurately. There is still skepticism, even if smartwatches take, that they can accurately track heartrate. 

Phones do have a phenomenal advantage in that they are ubiquitous, and adoption is exceptional. I don’t know anybody that does not have a smartphone today. But what do I get out of that? Do I get the accuracy of my heart rate? Do I get other capabilities that I want to see… capabilities I can get from a wearable that I am in touch with the entire time. Given what we are trying to solve for, it will prove to be an interesting battle.

3) Looking past current wearables on the market today, where do you see digital health taking the health club industry five years from now?

That’s a really interesting question because the potential has become enormous, but just as it has been for the last 30 years, the next five will still be about relationships. What’s the relationship that I have today with my club (as a member)? What’s the relationship that I have with the other members? What’s the relationship that I have with my employer? What’s the relationship I have with my healthcare provider? My doctor? My coach? My team? I think when you look at the evolving way we engage in relationships through technology, you’ll see the digital aspect of that becoming more pervasive. I am not addressing just the customer relations concerns here, but also the relationship an employee has with their employer —  a financial relationship that plays a role in the person’s well-being. The big challenge is going to be the exchange of value. To me, there is a two-way value exchange. For instance, I (employee) let you see my steps on a daily basis, you (employer) give me $300 towards my monthly insurance bill. People love to discuss privacy concerns, but quickly forget it was only a few years ago they were hesitant to store credit card information with Privacy issues aside, annual healthcare spend is the largest line item on our country’s P & L! Follow the money — over the next five years there will be enormous energy around a digital understanding of each consumer, each member, each employee. I see this evolving into some greater level of personalization that simply does not exist today. How do I get to know a specific person in a meaningful way and understand their needs, provide them value for that exchange, and capitalize on the value associated with that understanding in an ethical way? We’ll answer that question.

4) There is a modern-day narrative that fitness delivery is well-positioned, better than ever, to be on the forefront of the continuum of health care. However, this discussion has been going on for a few years now (e.g. Exercise is Medicine, Exercise is a Vital Sign, etc). In your opinion, do you believe technology has helped, or hindered, progress in this area? 

The challenge is the complexity around data privacy. What are the responsibilities around those that are in charge of the data? How do I protect the consumers’ willingness to share? What level of privacy should I expect in terms of dealing with any manufactured insight, i.e. new personal information generated about me that could effect my livelihood (e.g. credit score)? This problem doesn’t get solved with one “ah-ha” moment. There are going to be step-changes that go along with this because we are a cautious nation when it comes to privacy. There are credit card breaches all the time with little consequence. But, if I let somebody know what your blood pressure is, I can still go to jail. So, I think that we are cautious as a society about health data, but I believe you will see that loosen over time. What are the true risks if I share this information? Truth is, you probably have a great interaction with your doctor and she becomes wonderfully more insightful about your health.

There are valid, historic concerns about the consequences of having a preexisting condition. There’s a scare about how that data can be used and possible negative impacts that could come as a result of someone having that information. Again, fair value exchange becomes important. I’m willing to share, if there is limited risk and I get something in return. Few are going to share data for the fun of it. If people get better care, get a lower rate on insurance, get more personalized programs that are really consistent with their health, they will come around. You can see that today, in the volume of opt-in consumer apps that are out in the market. There will be dissection among the population: those that are willing to share health data and those that are not. There is always a sub-segment that’s going to believe in some conspiracy theory that, “data will always be used against me.” They are not going to participate willingly. Luckily there are many that have a willingness to take that risk. I think the more challenging issues are not around, “Can I collect data and generate insights around this woman’s health and well-being?” The challenges are more going to be around policies and protections that allow the consumers of that information to use it appropriately and ethically. To me it’s not technology that has hindered us so much… people have.  

5) The last couple of questions I have asked you what you think might be different in the future regarding fitness technology, a harder question might be the one I will conclude with: what is going to remain the same five years from now?

Five years from now, mobile will still be the center of our lives. It is the communication mechanism for any audience, whether you are talking about a health club member, you are a member of an airline, a hotel guest, or an Uber rider. Mobile will remain the primary platform for customer interaction in the near future. This bears repeating from my previous answer… thirty years ago, I used to have a few health clubs and the same mandates exist today: a need to acquire new members, a need to retain those members, and a desire to increase the contribution/benefit made to the member base. That’ll be the same in five years… probably for as long as health clubs exist.

With the pervasiveness of availability of information available to the consumer, the fitness industry, like any other mature industry, is becoming more and more competitive. So, the drivers of asset performance will be the same in five years. Mechanisms for personalization will evolve. There will be this quest for personalization. Whether I have a big box or a small box, I will be able to use technology to have the capability to differentiate my offering with personalization, but that is only filling the need that has always been there …building a meaningful connection with your member.